Uncommon Wisdom

March 3, 2011  3:27 PM

Juniper’s PTX MPLS-optical supercore switch — completing a cloud play

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

Juniper made its second major announcement in two weeks, this time its PTX MPLS-optical supercore switch. The product’s roots probably lie in early interest (“early” meaning the middle of the last decade) by Verizon in a new core architecture for IP networks that would eliminate the transit routing that was common in hierarchical IP cores. Since then, everyone from startups (remember Corvus?) to modern players like Alcatel-Lucent, Ciena, and Cisco have been announcing some form of optical-enabled core. What makes Juniper’s PTX different?

Good question, and it’s not easy to answer it from the Juniper’s announcement, but I’d say that the differentiator is the chipset. Junos Express appears to be the same basic chip used in the recently announced QFabric data center switch. Thus, you could say that the PTX is a based on a low-latency MPLS switching architecture that’s more distributed than QFabric. Given what we perceive as a chipset link between the products, I’m creating a term to describe this: Express Domain. An “Express Domain” is a network domain that’s built using devices based on the Express chipset. A PTX network is an Express Domain in the WAN and QFabric is an Express Domain within a data center.

If you look at the PTX that way, then what Juniper is doing is creating an Express Domain linked by DWDM and running likely (at least initially) in parallel with other lambdas that still carry legacy TDM traffic. It becomes less about having an optical strategy than it is about creating a WAN-scale fabric with many of the deterministic features of QFabric. Over time, operators would find their TDM evolving away and would gradually migrate the residual to TDM-over-packet form, which would then make the core entirely an Express Domain. The migration would be facilitated by the fact that the latency within an Express Domain is lower (because packet handling can be deterministic, as it is with QFabric) and because the lower level of jitter would mean it’s easier to make TDM-over-packet technology work. Overall performance of the core would also improve. In short, we’d have something really good for none of the reasons that have been covered so far in the media. Continued »

March 2, 2011  2:39 PM

Apple iPad 2 hits the market — shines light on tablet trends

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

The big news today is Apple’s new iPad announcement, an event whose usual Apple drama was upstaged by a surprise visit by Steve Jobs. The essence of the announcement was familiar: “iPads are making us smarter, healthier, richer, better looking, and so forth, and that’s from the first version. Now look what’s going to happen!”

What is going to happen? Well, 2011 is the “Year of the Copycats” according to Jobs, but Apple isn’t resting on its laurels. The iPad 2 is based on a new dual-core chip that’s twice as fast, with new nine-times-faster graphics, front- and-rear-facing video cameras, built-in gyro, 33% thinner (thinner than an iPhone 4)—you get the picture. The new model will source HDMI at up to 1080p, which makes it a logical companion to HDTVs and probably presages more Apple work there. Network-wise, it’s not breaking any ground yet—still 3G and WiFi and no LTE or WiMAX. Pricing is the same; starting at about $500.  Overall, it’s a major upgrade in performance and a modest improvement in features—the improvement being the dual cameras.

The new iPad 2 will certainly make things harder for the Android guys, particularly those that, like Motorola, have just announced their own tablets. At best, the current Android tablets are just about equal to the iPad, although most are significantly heavier/thicker, and the new iPad 2 trumps that form factor.  There’s a lot of clever engineering in the gadget, even to magnetic catches on the cover that are sensed by the device and used to trigger a power-up when the cover is removed (you really don’t expect to see a cover demonstration on video at a launch event).

Apple is rising to the challenge of the competition, but it’s also showing that even its own dramatically innovative culture can’t create a revolution every year. The biggest bison can still be dragged down by a large pack of even little wolves.

But in the meantime, we have a clear trend to follow. Appliances are going to get lighter and more convenient but also more powerful, with better and better video. That’s going to make enterprises look even harder at using tablets for worker empowerment, and it’s going to make tablets a more and more attractive way to consume video, making multi-screen strategies all the more important. Most of all, we’re seeing yet again that the market is in the hands of the consumer device vendors. Nobody else is making any real progress being exciting. and without excitement, there’s no engagement with the media. Without media engagement, there’s no ability to market.

February 24, 2011  2:54 PM

HP and Juniper: On financials and the cloud

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

It’s not uncommon to find a combination of good and bad news in the tech space. For example, on the bad side, we have HP’s numbers. On the good side, Juniper’s new QFabric.

HP announced disappointing results, a contrast not only to Street expectations but to competitor Dell’s recent numbers. The problem, says the company, is softness in the consumer PC sector and the fact that HP doesn’t sell much to businesses relative to their total PC sales. The real issue, I think, is the company’s management agony and a nearly total loss of focus on business.

I was particularly unmoved by the CEO’s promise to get something going with cloud computing. Where has he been, anyway? This is no time to start laying out your cloud strategy; competitors have been doing that for over a year. HP’s decision to buy Palm is another point of future challenges; they’re not sustaining their momentum in their core markets, so how do they expect to take on Android and Apple in the tablet and smartphone space? This is a company that’s been on a roll for years, and it’s now at serious risk to lose credibility and market share. They have perhaps two quarters now to turn things around, after which they’re probably going to risk permanent damage.

The cloud also figures in the Juniper announcement. The company has been talking about their “Stratus” project for several years, and they’ve finally started delivering on the new data center fabric officially called QFabric, with the nodal element, the QFX3500. The details and the roadmap are impressive, and it’s very possible that Juniper has something here that will change the game, change some minds, and produce significant competitor angst. We’ll cover this in detail in our March Netwatcher, but let me summarize here. Continued »

February 23, 2011  4:07 PM

Apple gets push-back from app providers over revenue

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

Apple, already facing an anti-trust review or two, is now getting growing push-back from app providers over the subscription-sharing rule. Apple wants a cut of every subscription, meaning that it want apps that sell something to sell only through Apple’s store and not directly to the consumer. If dissent spreads here, it could be a worse problem for Apple than government scrutiny.

From the very first days, Apple has fostered a closed ecosystem model to the greatest extent it could, bucking a general industry trend toward opening software and systems to third-party exploitation. Google announced its own program for an Android store that’s considerably more financially friendly to publishers and streaming audio/video apps, which only puts more pressure on Apple.

The rumors of a lower-priced iPhone and even iPad are further indications that Apple is worried about competition from Android. Just as the PC-compatibles shunted Apple aside in the desktop wars of the 1980s, Android-based devices are threatening to diminish Apple’s market share and marginalize it with developers—those who aren’t already upset by Apple’s store policies. But Apple loses in any price war even if it wins, because Apple is always seen as a player that sustains higher margins. With Jobs’ health now clearly a problem, the difficulties could be harder for Apple to work through.

February 23, 2011  3:58 PM

Video streaming causing wireline broadband and cable planning issues

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

It is very clear that video streaming services are growing, partly in response to the tablet opportunity, and this creates special problems for broadband operators, most of whom see video services in the form of channelized TV as a big revenue opportunity. Now they’re faced with having OTT streaming services using the operator’s own lowest-profit Internet service to compete with channelized video that’s supposed to be that operator’s highest-profit service.

The debate here, crystallized in the Comcast/Level 3 dispute, was recently punted by the FCC even though no formal complaint has yet been filed. But not only may Level 3 file such a complaint, Netflix is making noises that it might do the same.

Cable MSOs are particularly sensitive to OTT video competition because of the fear that cord-cutting will catch on. They’re similarly concerned that HD and 3D services, when streamed, will create even more traffic and pose major congestion issues unless cable companies build out more. Remember, their cable spans are shared-capacity, so they may have to make more radical changes to scavenge bandwidth for online services. And they want somebody to pay.

February 23, 2011  3:54 PM

As operators speed 4G LTE migration, complications follow

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

The smartphone and tablet wars are putting pressure on mobile providers, and in particular, creating competitive drive to migrate to LTE. Operators tell us that their LTE migration strategies have been advanced by more than a year, and that this is creating its own set of issues because a faster move means a lot of users will either have to be driven to change out their phones or there will be a considerable number of older 3G devices still in service when 4G rolls in.

One impact this has had is increased interest among providers in using packet-mode infrastructure to backhaul circuit-switched connections. Running a single fast feed to a 4G tower is bad enough, but doubling it up with TDM backhaul for circuit-mode voice is truly bad news. Extreme Networks did a mobile backhaul announcement that focused on synchronous backhaul and integration of packet-sync traffic with TDM, and now Juniper has snapped up the IP of a startup with synchronous packet backhaul capability.

Another issue created by pushing 4G into the fast lane is the change in the dynamics of the metro network created by all the mobile backhaul paths. A typical metro area (LATA) in the U.S. today would have an average of about 200 central offices. There would likely be 10 to 20 times that many mobile cells (in addition to femtocells and WiFi sites). How will all of these new locations impact the metro mission? And given that 4G will almost certainly drive packet-mode voice over LTE (VoLTE) , could there be pressure to migrate wireline users to VoIP? Operations clearly has to contend with this.

February 21, 2011  4:11 PM

Will Congress derail the FCC’s net neutrality before the courts do?

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

Well, we’ve got the usual regulatory flap, with the same players and the same issues. Republicans in Congress are looking for a way to derail the FCC’s net neutrality order, and the strategies range from a disapproval vote (which only buys some time) to pulling funding for the measure (a cop-out that has no chance of passing and getting by a veto). It’s hard to say how much of this is politics, how much is lobbying, and how much is posturing to get on the “right” side of an issue the courts are likely to throw out eventually.

The FCC, meanwhile, has said explicitly that its neutrality order doesn’t cover the dispute between Comcast and Level 3, and this statement could be good or bad depending on your slant on the neutrality order’s legality. Presuming that the FCC could craft something that passed legal muster, it would make sense for it to cover the critical issues in the industry rather than let them blunder on some random path. The question of Internet settlement is one of the most critical of all, and so I would have liked the FCC to take some strong steps there. You can’t take a strong step from an order without legal foundation, however, and given the questions on the neutrality order, it may be best that the FCC doesn’t intend to intervene in key issues based on its authority.

Many of you who have read my stuff through the years know that I’ve been a strong supporter of explicit Internet settlement, to the point of being a co-author of an RFC on the topic in the mid-90s. I believe that any business ecosystem that can’t settle payments according to proportional involvement of parties will eventually fail. In particular, premium handing and services are hard to imagine in a bill-and-keep space, unless everything is “on-us”. Thus, the lack of settlement is one of the biggest issues to address if you really want an “open” Internet.  The FCC is saying that the market can decide, but of course that will work only if Congress doesn’t get in the way. And in any case the market hasn’t decided up to now.

February 18, 2011  3:05 PM

VoLTE migration faces regulatory and revenue questions

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

In the telco space, Mobile World Congress seemed to bring out support for VoLTE; both AT&T and Verizon indicated they’d be making the Big Move, though over a period of two to three years. There are still open questions on how LTE networks will support voice, how they’ll support roaming and premium services, and how much or little IMS and more traditional interconnect concepts will drive the process. But presuming that the migration happens on schedule and that operators continue to push hard with phones, it’s not unreasonable to think that by 2015 we’d be seeing some pressure on wireline voice. Will this create that final push to fixed mobile convergence (FMC) and IP infrastructure everywhere?

Sure, but probably not all that quickly. The problem is that the great majority of households retain PSTN voice services. Operators tell me that they don’t believe they will reach 80% penetration of LTE handsets before 2016 or even later in some areas. They believe that regulators would be distressed by plans to force upgrades either in wireline or wireless unless the operator could essentially create the PSTN at the home dmarc and sustain compatibility with current in-home and in-business phones. They’re worried about lifeline, about powering phones, and about 911 services. But most of all, they’re of the view that recapitalizing voice services when voice ARPU has nowhere to go but down is a bad move.  So they aren’t in a rush to change their strategy for wireline.

What VoLTE shows is that the migration to VoIP and the resulting changes in infrastructure are most likely to come about because of some business initiative that creates new revenue. Transformation is a proactive process, driven by opportunities to make money or requirements to make it on something different. Because LTE is 4G, 4G is the future of wireless broadband and wireless broadband is the future of mobile, operators are moving to VoLTE.  The “future” in all these cases is seen as being revenue-positive. It remains to be seen how fast IP voice will penetrate the rest of the TDM world.

February 16, 2011  12:41 AM

Signs of future mobile and online trends at Mobile World Congress

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

A couple of talks at Mobile World Congress may be signs of important future trends in mobile and online. First AT&T CEO Stephenson said the difficulties in moving content between devices was hampering mobile content opportunity. He also commented that AT&T believed that apps should run across devices, not be linked to a single gadget. While at least the second of these could be a sour-grapes reaction to Apple’s App Store concept, no longer an AT&T private lake, it seems likely that Stephenson is onto something regarding content portability.

Then Google’s outgoing CEO Eric Schmidt’s often-disconnected talk showcased something important — online mobile services are reshaping our lives in ways nobody predicted. If you put these two talks together, you get a picture of an industry that’s grappling with a combination of enormous opportunity and influence, and enormous structural change.

We can find out what friends are doing almost in real time, so at least for a time we do. We can grab video clips to laugh over, check the weather, and so forth. But all of this is like a new TV show in a way. The first couple of episodes are fresh and exciting, then the writers just run out of ideas. Stephenson is worried that a focus on mobile social indulgence is going to cover up the need to establish something real and useful at the core of the mobile revolution, particularly in content. Continued »

February 14, 2011  4:22 PM

Mobile World Congress: Let the 4G relevance and tablet battles begin

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

As Mobile World Congress opens this year, it’s already clear that we’re going to see a battle of relevance as much as one of technology. Network equipment vendors divide roughly into two groups: those with wireless 4G assets and those without. The former group has a direct link to wireless projects and investment, which means that they can pull through backhaul and metro gear in larger projects. The latter group is hoping to make their network-layer products relevant in a world driven increasingly by mobile and radio technology.

Cisco and Juniper have already announced products aimed at creating a mobile-accommodating backhaul and metro infrastructure, and at improving the management of the experience. Arguing over which of these vendors has the best “box x” or “box y” is an exercise in futility. The one area where they may differ in a tangible way is what we call the “service layer,” the software and “networkware” tools that reside above the normal transit/connection assets. Continued »

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